What does it actually mean?
There are quite a number of devices available to writers which help them enhance narrative and emphasis certain things within it. One of the ways writers do this is by placing strategic dialogue – this is dialogue that is repeated several times in the novel, like a message, a constant reminder for the reader, and is based on the main theme running through the story.
It also appears at opportune moments in the narrative - hence the strategic placement. This is more commonly known as a motif.
Motifs are recurring themes, ideas or elements that carry significant meaning and are always brought to the forefront by the writer at strategic moments in the story, to remind the reader of the importance of the theme. It works because it is subtle, almost subliminal, and forms an integral part of the overall message at the heart of the story.
Some famous movies have used this method quite effectively – The Wizard of Oz uses the ‘there’s no place like home’ motif to push the theme that the home is where the heart truly is. This is the main theme to the entire story. Despite the exciting land of Oz and all its colourful characters, Dorothy is constantly reminded that there is ‘no place like home’.
Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club uses motif when talking about the rules of Fight Club. Several times the characters talk of rules: ‘The first rule of fight club is…you do not talk about Fight Club.’ This is repeated as a reminder to the reader (and the audience in the film version) how secretive and exclusive the club is.
Stephen King has used strategic dialogue with many novels, but one very memorable novel is Misery. He repeats Annie’s phrase, ‘I’m your number one fan’ several times throughout the novel as a motif, because it directly relates to the primary theme of control and misplaced adulation. He uses the phrase to open the book and then cleverly uses the same phrase at the end of the novel.
Each of these strategic dialogue phrases are examples that directly relate to the main theme of the story and yet they reinforce the message the writer wants to get across to the reader.
And the good thing is that such planned dialogue can be anything you want a character to say (as long as it isn’t cliché), and it is pertinent to the story.
Writers may not realise it, but the power of repeated phrases and words does have a subconscious effect on the reader, and because of it they are more likely to remember what your primary or dominant theme is about.
The clever thing about strategic dialogue placement is that it doesn’t have to be overt. You don’t have to beat the reader over the head every two pages with it. It should be very subtle. Strategic dialogue is not there to annoy the reader, but rather to enhance the narrative and story experience for them.
So how many times should you use strategic dialogue?
There is no written rule on this, but common sense should prevail, so don’t overdo it. If the motif is mentioned every now and then – say three times throughout the novel - it will gently remind the reader rather than irritate them. If you go above four or five times then the reader may become annoyed by the repetition. And repetition only works when it’s subtle and occasionally done.
Some strategic dialogue phrases are so well done that the reader doesn’t realise always they’re reading intentional dialogue, but the message behind it will still get through. That’s why it remains one of the least used and most clever of literary devices that writers can use.
Remember that if you do want to enhance the narrative and highlight your theme, and use strategic dialogue, make sure it directly relates to the story, or it won’t work at all.
Next week: Making sure your plot isn’t predictable